Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Strategic Air Command (1955)

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, directed by Anthony Mann, is my kind of movie, an interesting '50s Air Force film with a great cast.

I smiled from the moment the opening credits began, announcing the film was in VistaVision. What a cast -- James Stewart and June Allyson, in their third and final film together, supported by faves like Bruce Bennett, Frank Lovejoy, Harry Morgan, and Rosemary DeCamp, along with Barry Sullivan, Jay C. Flippen, and Alex Nicol.

According to Jeanine Basinger's book on director Mann, James Stewart was a "driving force" behind the creation of STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. Stewart, who served with the Air Force for 27 years and retired as a Brigadier General in the Air Force reserves, believed the public should better understand SAC's role defending our nation. He secured the full cooperation of General Curtis LeMay, the head of SAC.

Stewart plays "Dutch" Holland, a baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals who is recalled to active duty to join SAC. Dutch is initially irritated with the interruption of his sports career, but once he's back in an airplane for the first time in several years, he grows to love it, and he also comes to appreciate the vital peacetime defense role of the Strategic Air Command.

I grew up watching Stewart and Allyson in THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954) countless times, but I'd never caught up with STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. (Still ahead of me to see is their first film, 1949's THE STRATTON STORY.) Stewart's real-life air force background doubtless lends his performance much of its natural authenticity, and their comfortable relationship with one another also comes through on screen. I thoroughly enjoyed their scenes together, alongside the aviation sequences.

The knock on this film from some quarters seems to be that it's dull. I didn't find it that way at all. I tend to like procedural-type films anyway, and I found learning specific details about what was involved in defending our nation in that time frame very interesting. The aerial sequences were extremely beautiful, perhaps the most impressive scenes of that type I've ever seen on film; these scenes were also inspiring, helping lead this viewer to more fully appreciate the accomplishments of those who made the planes and the brave men with the talent to fly them.

I also enjoyed the film as a window on the 1950s, in general, soaking up all the visual details, from the cars to the home decor to the huge B-36 planes and the gorgeous big map on the wall in the flight operations room. Having focused on Cold War history and politics back in college -- which was just a few years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall -- I also appreciated being able to go back in time to better understand the post-WWII mindset towards defending our nation.

Another knock I've read in multiple places is that Allyson's character is whiny. To the contrary, she's positive and a great sport for most of the film. She only cracks near the end, when her husband re-enlists without talking to her first -- yeah, I think I'd be upset not to be in on the decision in advance too! It's a major lifestyle decision affecting the entire family. And her emotional response is accentuated by her well-founded concern about her husband's physical condition and safety. In contrast to Allyson's critics, in her Mann book Jeanine Basinger praises Allyson's "grace and delicacy," and I concur.

Lovely Rosemary DeCamp plays June Allyson's mother -- although in real life DeCamp was not quite seven years older than Allyson. That's better, at least, than YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), where DeCamp's movie son, James Cagney, was over a decade her senior! There's a photo in DeCamp's autobiography which is interesting, insofar it's of a restaurant scene with DeCamp, Stewart, Allyson, and James Bell which didn't make it into the final film.

The screenplay of this 112-minute film was by Valentine Davies (MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) and Beirne Lay Jr., based on Lay's original story. Lay's name was familiar to me, and I discovered he cowrote the screenplays for two of my favorite military films, ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952), about the dropping of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII, and THE GALLANT HOURS (1960), a film about Admiral Halsey's WWII service which I thought was one of the finest films I saw in 2011.

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND was released on VHS in 1998. Curiously, given Stewart's longstanding popularity, it does not seem to have had a DVD release.

The movie can be seen via Netflix Watch Instantly streaming. It's also shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

Reviews of additional '50s Air Force films: OPERATION HAYLIFT (1950), AIR CADET (1951), SABRE JET (1953), and BOMBERS B-52 (1957).

November 2016 Update:
STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films. My review of the Blu-ray may be found here.


Blogger Carrie said...

It still puzzles me why this isn't on DVD. I still have my Laser Disc version of the movie just for that reason!

4:10 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"I also enjoyed the film as a window on the 1950s, in general, soaking up all the visual details, from the cars to the home decor to the huge B-36 planes and the gorgeous big map on the wall in the flight operations room."

Agreed. Classic films are more than just the movie stars.

5:38 AM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

I really like this movie, but I wish they cut back on the family life and concentrate on the job of SAC. I like "procedural films" and groan when they make the obligatory detour to family life or romance. I agree that June Allyson gave a good performance. She is not a whiny character at all, the actress just has an annoying voice. But I'd prefer that the wife was a bit part and get on with the technical details and fabulous photograhy.
Definitely, a highly recommended film.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

June and Jimmy, always a good team.
And I love to see any of Frank Lovejoy's appearances, even in small roles.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you all so much for your comments. Lots of favorites in this one. It's such a visually interesting film -- it would make a fantastic Blu-ray.

Best wishes,

7:46 PM  

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